A telephone call thirty years ago from an attorney representing the estate of a family friend changed Ernest Johnson’s life forever. He was bequeathed numerous Victorian pieces of furniture for which he had no real need.
With a British mother and Italian father, Ernest had a great understanding of the Old World from an early age, having grown up surrounded by antiques. But with no sense of the real value of these inherited pieces, he contacted recommended antique dealers to ascertain their age and worth. Not satisfied with their information, he began his quest to learn everything he could about the world of antiques.
An active member of the Canadian Antique Dealers Association (CADA), Ernest prides himself on being self-taught. He is recognized as one of the preeminent antique dealers in the country, specializing in 18th to 20th century English, European, Asian Fine and Decorative Art.
He started selling at the Ottawa Antique Market, then Bloomsbury Antiques. Ernest established his own storefront in the early 1990s across from Rideau Hall; he also sold pieces at the Astrolabe Gallery. He is now back at the Ottawa Antique Market, a cooperative specializing in 20th century, mid-century modern furniture, decorative arts, estate jewellery, Canadiana, vintage clothing and textiles. Ernest also attracts buyers and sellers from all over the world via his website: ernestjohnsonantiques.com.
What do you enjoy about the antiques business? Meeting people from all walks of life and hearing about their pieces and how they came to possess them. There are a lot of surprises in this business. Clients ask me to come look at their items and I often expect to see something utilitarian, but what they actually have is extraordinary.
Do you have favourite antiques at home? I like to surround myself with pieces that are well crafted, that amuse me, but also have a serious element to them. With my discerning eye they have to be very special. It is important to protect antiques and I keep the more sensitive pieces at home. I have an 18th century Italian Neapolitan commode in pristine condition, with its original Sienna marble top. It was discovered in a house that was being remodelled and when the existing plaster came down it was hidden behind a wall underneath the stairwell, secreted away.
Do you think of a specific client when you find a piece? I buy something because I instinctually like it and hope it translates to my client base. I would never purchase something on the basis that I want to sell it to a specific person. If I come across items that I know someone collects I would of course contact them. No matter what a client buys, I afford them the opportunity to live with it for a few days to see if it fits in or not. It may look great on the sales floor, but may not work in their home. I do not want anyone to have buyer’s remorse.
How does someone integrate antiques into their home? Antiques don’t always have to blend in or complement your other furniture in terms of color or form. It is almost better that they juxtapose because it makes each piece stand out, which I like.
I am not a decorator, but have helped decorate people’s homes with my pieces or from familiar sources that I know will suit their home environment. My younger clients cannot believe that a piece over 100 years old can be in such good shape. I tell them that antiques were handmade and created to last.
What does your future hold? From my early working years in menswear retail, to instructing tennis and then owning two catering companies, I have had a very interesting and satisfying life; it’s been an extraordinary journey. I happily found my passion in the magical world of antiques and am driven by what I do. The antiques business is hundreds of years old and I think it is going to continually reinvent itself.
Things change constantly based on tastes, styles, needs and wants. It is never boring because there are so many layers to it. It is definitely not a get-rich business, rather more an addiction. but I know this world I discovered so many years ago is where I am meant to be.